Where are the people in the ‘public interest’? U.S. media activism and the search for constituency

by Aliza Dichter, Center for International Media Action

There is much excitement in the U.S. over the resurgence of a people’s movement against the corporate media juggernaut that is dominating culture, commerce and the future of communications. Can the NGOs that are taking leadership build a movement that is as democratic, diverse and community-oriented as the media system they promote?

In 2002-2003, a coalition of U.S. activists waged a multi-tactic campaign against corporate media, scoring a few key victories against a powerful force of media concentration. No, this wasn’t the battle over media ownership rules at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The campaign leaders were not the public-interest lawyers, consumer groups, labour unions and churches who were lobbying the FCC over eroding regulation – they were youth organizers and artists, activists who saw the media as a key battleground in their fight for social justice. This was the story of a community taking on their local media, refusing to be a passive audience sold to advertisers with nothing in return.

Meanwhile, the big U.S. media activist news of 2003 was the FCC media ownership review, when industry and regulator plans to remove most of the final restrictions on media consolidation were met with an unprecedented public outcry and the opposition of hundreds of NGOs (non-profit, non-governmental organizations), small businesses, labour unions and activist groups. When the regulatory agency proceeded with deregulation as expected by a 3-2 vote, activists hoped the outpouring of public sentiment would be enough to sway lawmakers to reverse the decision. Although the voices of more than 2 million people have not yet been enough to stop the corporate push for ownership deregulation, they may form the foundation of an emergent movement for media reform. Or so advocates hope.

This article briefly tells the story of these two recent activist efforts - a community’s campaign to pressure a local station to serve its needs and a national mobilization to stave off the final blows of ownership deregulation - to help explore some of the challenges and opportunities for civil society in shaping media policy and practice. (By necessity, it only begins to skim the surface of the stories, the history and the issues. The resources listed at the end are a starting point for further information.)

Activism for accountability: the community vs. Clear Channel

In 2002, a coalition of San Francisco Bay Area activist groups issued a challenge to KMEL, a popular hip-hop radio station with a history of providing community affairs programming and launching new artists. When the station and its main competitor were both bought by Clear Channel Communications in 1999, coverage of social justice issues and local music began to disappear, replaced by digital pre-programming and replays of the ‘top hits’ - although they kept the slogan ‘The People’s Station’ (Chang, 2003). In 2001, after KMEL fired two of its most-loved radio hosts, several community representatives met with station executives to discuss their concerns. Not satisfied with the result, the community organizers launched a project to monitor the station’s content, report the findings and issue recommendations for change (YMC, 2002).

The report ‘Is KMEL the People’s Station? A community assessment of 106.1 KMEL’ was produced by a coalition of youth organizing groups including Let’s Get Free, an organization of working class youth of colour fighting abuses of the criminal justice system, Media Alliance, a 26-year-old resource and advocacy centre for independent journalists and social justice activists, Mindzeye, a local artists collective, and the Youth Media Council, which provides media advocacy, training and capacity support to youth activist groups from marginalized communities. Joined by other local activists, artists, journalists and young people, the groups formed the Community Coalition for Media Accountability (CCMA) and targeted the station with a combination of press releases, sticker campaigns and actions that demanded a response. Their report found that the station ‘routinely excludes the voices of youth organizers and local artists, neglects discussion of policy debates affecting youth and people of colour, focuses disproportionately on crime and violence and has no clear avenues for listeners to hold the station accountable’ (YMC, 2002).

Now the CCMA was there to demand accountability. They picked a mighty opponent: Clear Channel Communications is the behemoth of U.S. radio, owning more than 1,200 stations thanks to the deregulation of radio ownership in the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Clear Channel’s CEO is a close friend and supporter of the Bush Administration and by 2002 the company was notorious for wielding its vast network of radio stations, concert venues and outdoor advertising locations to promote pro-war views, pressure musicians and replace employees with computerized systems. But the CCMA got their meeting, and in early 2003 KMEL management began making some concessions. The station agreed to add new local-music shows and bring back a popular program they had previously cancelled (Chang, 2003).

In June, 2003, something rather extraordinary happened: KMEL partnered with Let’s Get Free to offer live coverage of ‘360° of Violence,’ a community forum featuring young people talking about policy and community solutions to street violence. Here, live on Clear Channel radio, young radicals were speaking out against racism, the criminal ‘injustice’ system and the oppressive, abusive dangers of concentrated corporate media. The campaign did not bring down the powerful corporation, nor did it shift government policy, but the listeners of KMEL had begun to win their station back.

An echo of history

The KMEL campaign is notable not only as a model of community activism against local media, but also because it evokes a seminal moment in the history of U.S. media activism. Forty years ago, civil rights leaders were faced with southern TV stations that featured African Americans in negative portrayals when it showed them at all and rejected the national network feeds when the programming featured blacks. After Martin Luther King Jr. brought these concerns to the attention of northern church leaders who had become involved in the civil rights movement, a high-level group of church leaders approached the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) with a proposal for stations to pledge their commitment to diversity in programming, to providing opportunities for blacks to buy airtime and to upholding the Fairness Doctrine requirement for blacks to present their views on-air when they’d been attacked or not represented. The NAB rejected the proposal. In response, in 1964, Reverend Everett C. Parker of the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ (UCC), worked with 28 local white residents of Jackson, Mississippi to monitor the programming and coverage on two television stations in Jackson and then used the findings as evidence in a petition for the FCC to revoke the stations’ licenses for failure to serve the public interest (Horwitz, 1997; Lloyd, 1997).

The FCC rejected the petition on the grounds that only economic stakeholders could petition for a license revocation. Essentially, that means only other broadcasters or advertisers could petition. Dr. Parker took the FCC to court and, in a 1966 decision that would create precedent for not only media activists but consumer groups, environmentalists and other citizen representatives to oppose industry at a regulatory agency, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favour of the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ against the FCC. That court decision is the reason that 2 million citizens could petition the FCC in 2003 and demand that the agency retain rules against total media concentration. Citizens could petition, but as this year has shown us, that might not matter.

The 2003 FCC fight

Thirty years after Dr. Parker battled the FCC and the racist TV owners, nearly all the federal regulations imposing public-interest obligations and community accountability requirements on broadcasters had been eliminated; the much-eroded limits on media consolidation were among the final enduring rules. Public-interest advocacy groups continued to lobby for the retention of these last restrictions on concentration, arguing their importance for democracy and diversity of views. When the openly pro-deregulation FCC Chairman Michael Powell (son of Secretary of State Colin Powell) announced a review of all remaining ownership limits in 2002, the advocates redoubled their efforts: petitioning the agency, circulating research, hosting public events, issuing press releases and building coalitions one phone call at a time. Urging citizens to contact the government in support of ownership limits, they improved on the FCC’s own complicated online system for filing comments by creating easier online forms for public use. Consumer networks, filmmakers’ associations, community media organizations, media-workers’ unions and children’s advocates urged their membership to get involved; small media companies, religious groups and civil rights organizations all took up official positions against media concentration; peace groups, environmentalists and other activists staged demonstrations (CIMA, 2003).

The opposition to ownership deregulation was remarkable for spanning the political spectrum: issues groups from left to right warned that increased media concentration would hinder their ability to get their perspectives into public debate. Conservative morality groups claimed that concentration would only increase indecency and ‘offensive’ programming while progressives argued that dominance by a handful of companies only increased pro-corporate, pro-military views and diminished journalistic independence. In 13 cities around the country, hundreds of community members showed up to voice their fears of media concentration during unofficial hearings supported by the two Democrats on the Commission.

For the advocates and activists who regularly focus on media policy, this was a moment of extraordinary opportunity - even if they do not win this battle. Lawmakers have introduced many bills to repeal or reduce the FCC action, but as of this writing the only one to pass Congress was so weakened by compromise it seemed to have been specifically revised to meet the needs of media giants Viacom and Murdoch’s News Corp. (The FCC had raised the cap on the percentage of national audience any one company could reach to 45%. The new law would have kept the old limit of 35% but at the final hour, in closed-door negotiations, it was raised up to 39%, just high enough that neither corporation would have to sell any of their current holdings.) An appeals court has temporarily stayed the implementation of all the FCC rule changes until it can issue an opinion on a challenge brought by the public-interest law firm Media Access Project, the community radio advocacy group Prometheus Radio Project and the National Council of Churches.

The opportunity has come because public awareness, the attention of legislators and the interest of philanthropic foundations have all been sparked by this issue. The challenge for media policy advocates is to build upon this foundation, to channel the energy into support and action for other media policy fights.

Reform or transform?

Many of the national-level public-interest advocates draw connections from the ownership issue to other issues of current concern, such as copyright, spectrum allocation and the transition to digital broadcasting. However, it is striking how rarely they have mentioned or linked up with those media structures where activists have won access and control. Since the deregulatory fervour of the 1980s, many of the wins have simply been a staving off of even worse policy, but there have been occasional victories that have put media and communications power in the public hands: public access television, the free-speech open participation television channels that cable companies must provide in many communities; the direct broadcast satellite (DBS) set-aside that mandates 4% of all channels for non-commercial educational or informational programming; low-power FM radio, a community radio service established in recent years as a counterforce to corporate monopoly media; even encryption, the ability for individuals to engage in private online communication free from government view (particularly important now, as political speech, dissent and action are threatened in the name of ‘security’) (Halleck, 2000; Olsen, 2000; Pahati, 2001; Stein, 1997).

The irony is that these advocates are often decrying the lack of positive models of democratic media systems, concerned that their difficulty in mobilizing people behind policy initiatives is the inability to give people a vision to fight for. Although far from perfect and often severely underfunded and dramatically underutilized, non-commercial media models such as public access TV, DBS set-asides and low-power radio could be among the visionary examples the advocates are seeking.

In his study of the UCC case of the 1960s, scholar Robert Horwitz refers to two earlier stages of attempts at media reform, when civil society groups attempted to influence the nature of the broadcast system at its inception and then a decade later in 1943-1947 when a group of ‘distinguished intellectuals’ formed the ‘Commission on Freedom of the Press.’ According to Horwitz, these efforts failed primarily because ‘reformers had little grasp of the political fight necessary to challenge such a powerful group as commercial broadcasters and were unable, or didn’t see the need, to coordinate their activities and to generate broad-based popular support. Their essentially elitist cultural sympathies mitigated against organizing a popular base and, moreover, indirectly undermined non-profit broadcast stations as a counter model’ (Horwitz, 1997).

While today’s media reformers may be more populist than their predecessors, critics have suggested that contemporary ‘media democracy’ advocates are similarly following a path of reform that will only serve those who already have societal power. The emerging Media Justice Network, a group of media activist organizations representing communities of colour and indigenous communities (including several of the groups involved in the KMEL campaign), has established itself in contrast and opposition to the existing field of media reformers and advocates, calling for a movement that is grounded in a power analysis of race, class and gender.

Nan Rubin and Makani Themba-Nixon position the Media Justice Network as the direct inheritor of the media activism of Dr. Parker and the civil rights movement, unlike the lobbyists and other advocates who are at the visible forefront of national media reform campaigns. ‘The lobbyists and scholars leading the current efforts at media reform are focusing on a whole different set of concerns – resistance to corporate media consolidation, the battle to preserve localism and against content that is commercial and sensationalistic – which are a far cry from the issues of racism and unfair treatment that launched the earlier movement’ (Themba-Nixon and Rubin, 2003).

Public interest seeks an interested public

NGOs working on media and communications policy in the U.S. are contending with the powerful forces of multinational corporations that are staking their economic claim to shape the future. As some of the top donors to political campaigns, with multi-million dollar lobbying budgets, the media industries have extraordinary power in the regulatory sphere (Lewis, 2003). With direct access to academic researchers and technologists, and the deep pockets for their own technological research and development, the major media companies are influencing current technology development to ensure their continued economic, and cultural hegemony (Dailey, 2003).

U.S. activists are fond of citing the maxim of the late community organizer Saul Alinsky, ‘the only way to beat organized money is with organized people.’ For many of the organizations and individuals who work to lobby the FCC, Congress and other regulators on behalf of the public, this tenet is understood to mean they need to get more people lined up behind their progressive positions on critical technological and policy issues.

How can these national ‘public-interest’ NGOs and advocates leverage the widespread concern over media concentration to galvanize civic engagement around other policy issues such as spectrum allocation, intellectual property and copyright, open access and community media? They generally frame this challenge as a problem of ‘messaging’ – that is, how to position the issues of media and communications policy to inspire more passion and participation from the public, either from leaders of other social-issues groups or from masses of individuals. Similarly, they have been seeking to generate an overarching theme that ties together all these issues under one conceptual framework - the notion of ‘media democracy,’ or ‘the public commons of information,’ ‘freedom of the press,’ ‘the right to communicate’ or the notion of ‘media diversity.’ The premise seems to be that if there is an easy way for people to get it, to relate these different policy issues to a core set of values for media and communications, the masses can be mobilized to oppose corporate media power and advance progressive goals for diverse, non-commercial, independent, accessible, participatory media.

But as many trainers, scholars and leaders of movement-building have made clear, ‘organizing is not simply about marketing an aim of ours that should belong to “them” or merely creating a “sense of community”’ (de Souza Briggs, 2003). Rather, the role of the organizer is to work with a community to help it come together to identify and tackle common problems and issues; this is different from advocacy, which is professionals doing things on behalf of others (Beckwith and Lopez, 1997).

It may be that public-interest advocates, the lawyers and NGO lobbyists who focus on policy change, should not seek to become organizers, but rather should seek to find ways to work with community organizers to mutually support each other’s goals and efforts. David Beckwith and Cristina Lopez note that a key element of community organizing is to locate the people and structures that can bring about the solutions to community-identified problems. As watchdogs on government and industry, the public-interest advocates may be in the best position to help highlight the political and policy opportunities for change.

In his research on the history and contemporary challenges of communications policy advocacy, Milton Mueller has argued for the need for new organizational forms to achieve institutional change in the media system (Mueller, 2003). But rather than seeking to re-invent themselves, or creating new organizations, perhaps what organizations in the field of progressive media policy activism need are new relationships, new ways for the advocates and organizers to work together.

The organizers, grounded in communities and accountable to community concerns, can mobilize popular support because they are starting where people already are, with the issues that people care about. The public-interest advocates are well positioned to identify the policy and regulatory structures that preserve the status quo, advance corporate media dominance or have the potential to undermine it. They policy advocates can help put a political target on the problems. Working and learning together with the community organizers, the U.S. public-interest advocates can move from searching for constituencies to serving constituencies and thus giving power to civil society to shape the media future.


Beckwith, Dave and Lopez, Cristina. ‘Community Organizing: People Power from the Grassroots’, Center for Community Change, 1997 http://comm-org.utoledo.edu/papers97/beckwith.htm
Chang, Jeff. ‘Urban radio rage’ San Francisco Bay Guardian, 22 January 2003. http://www.sfbg.com/37/18/cover_kmel.html
CIMA (Center for International Media Action). ‘The Media Policy Action Directory, First Edition’ November, 2003. http://www.mediaactioncenter.org/projects.html
Dailey, Dharma. ‘Report on the Technology Policy Research Conference (TPRC)’, November 26, 2003 Unpublished, provided by the author.
Halleck, Deedee. ‘Teamsters And Turtles, Hackers And Tigers: Cyber Activism, Independents And The PBS Fortress’ MediaChannel.org, 25 July 2000.
Horwitz, Robert. ‘Broadcast Reform Revisited: Reverend Everett C. Parker and the ‘Standing’ Case (Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ v. Federal Communications Commission)’, The Communication Review, Vol. 2, No. 3 (1997).
Lewis, Charles. Relaxing Media Ownership Rules Conflicts with the Public’s Right to Know,’ Center for Public Integrity, January 16, 2003.
Lloyd, Mark. ‘Communications Policy is a Civil Rights Issue’, Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy, 4 August 1997. http://www.ctcnet.org/r981lloy.htm
Media Tank. ‘Angels of the Public Interest Report.’ Mediatank.org, March, 2002 http://www.mediatank.org/Angels2.html
Mueller, Milton. ‘Reinventing Media Activism: Citizen Activism as a Socio-Economic and Political Phenomenon.’ Presentation at the Ford Foundation, 29 July 2003. http://dcc.syr.edu/ford/tnca.htm
Olsen, Bill. ‘The history of public access television.’ 2000.
Pahati, Omar J. ‘Confounding Carnivore: How to Protect Your Online Privacy.’ Alternet.org,
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Safire, William. ‘On Media Giantism’, The New York Times, 20 January 2003. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/20/opinion/20SAFI.html
Stein, Laura. ‘Public Access Cable Television and Radical Media.’ October 1997. http://www.idsnet.org/Papers/Communications/LAURA_STEIN.HTM
Themba-Nixon, Makani and Rubin, Nan. ‘Speaking for Ourselves .’ The Nation, 17 November 2003. http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20031117&s=thembanixon Also see www.mediajustice.org
YMC (Youth Media Council), ‘Is KMEL the People’s Station? A community assessment of 106.1 KMEL’ November 13, 2002 http://www.youthmediacouncil.org/pdfs/BuildAPeoplesStation.pdf

Aliza Dichter is the Director of Programs for CIMA: Center for International Media Action, a nonprofit organization providing tools and services to help media advocacy groups connect, collaborate and increase their collective impact. Sections of this article about the 2003 FCC fight were adapted from the CIMA publication ‘The Media Policy Action Directory, First Edition,’ available for download at www.mediaactioncenter.org. Ms. Dichter can be reached at cima@mediaactioncenter.org.

article originally published at http://www.wacc.org.uk/wacc/publications/media_development/2004_1.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey